"During that summer the channel broadcast one of the most beautiful documentaries it has ever funded." -- Me, below.

TV I've been meaning to mention this for at least five days. Off The Telly have updated their Channel 4 at 20 article to include the next five years. It's amazing how much the channel has changed even in the past couple of years. Goodness I miss RI:SE. At least it was unpredictable and you had something to shout at for its ineptitude in the morning. I was asked to contribute and my memorial for a very odd but lovely documentary has been posted in 2003. It had to be edited for space and so just as a special treat for you loyal reader, here is the writer's cut:

Alt.TV: The Is A True Story, 2003

Channel 4 for me has always worked best at the margins. At the edges of the property shows, dating games, imports, landmark dramas, chat shows and sitcoms, those quiet moments of magic which throw light on some unheralded part of life or the world. Their Alt TV strand, broadcast in 2003, like the later Three Minute Wonder does exactly that and some time during that summer the channel broadcast one of the most beautiful documentaries it has ever funded.

This Is A True Story was seeded on an excellent premise. The filmmakers led by Paul Berczeller wanted to investigate an urban myth surrounding the death of a young Japanese woman in North Dakota. So the story went, after watching the Coen Brother’s Oscar winning film Fargo, Takako Konishi had travelled to the state capital, Bismarck, searching for the unclaimed money which had been buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in the film (which had been shot in and around the town, called Brainerd on screen).

The town police (who had been called after Takoko had been seen wondering in the snowy wilderness just outside town) said she’d even had a map pointing out the spot where the money could be found and regardless of the protestations of the town’s people that the film was a fiction, and despite what the Coens had mischievously written in the opening caption card of the film (giving this documentary its title). Sadly, she was later found dead in some woods across the state line in Minnesota.

The resulting documentary does contain all of the elements that can be found in more lurid examples; there were head and shoulder interviews and reconstructions of Takako’s movements and a voice over filling in the narrative blanks. Except that in reconstructing the final days of this mysterious girl, Berczeller was inspired by La Jetée, Chris Marker’s 1964 film about time travel (later remade by Terry Gilliam as Twelve Monkeys) which told its story entirely in still frames. He took a music promoter, Mimi, who had more than passing resemblance to the student and had her stand in the same wintry landscape as the dead girl and in photographs with the very townspeople who had originally interacted with Takoko.

This meant that the documentary was filled with a range of atmospheric and importantly memorable images, this confused girl standing in hotel lobbies and streets and eventually woods unable to communicate well with the people surrounding her and them with her. In choosing photography over film, Berczeller created an eerie sense of really being there, following the original girl on her path of uncertain doom; the music too eskewed melodrama in favour of mellow tones so that when the inevitable moment when the Takoko’s death scene was recreated it was heartbreaking but not in a cloying way.

Arguably the piece blurred the line between television documentary and video art but as this thorough article from the filmmaker written for The Guardian at the time underlines he was not interested in simply producing a representation of the original urban myth. This was an investigation into what psychologically led this girl to travel to the US chasing this money, both by Berczeller and Mimi, who empathised with Takoko’s plight. As well as providing haunting images this was as solid a piece of 'journalism' as anything you might find in primetime or with three times the duration on the big screen.

As the film revealed, in fact, sadly her interest in Fargo was just part of the miscommunication. She’d used a word similar to the indie film whilst talking to the police who’d put two and two together and made five – that version of her story had been perpetuated by the press. The truth was that she’d originally visited Minnesota with a boyfriend, an American businessman who’d later broken up with her, and unable to cope she’d revisited one of the places of their happiest times together. The final phone call she made from her hotel in Bismarck was to him, and she’d posted a suicide note to her family in those same few days. Some might say though that the truth, flying halfway across the world to die in one of the only places she was truly happy with her ex-boyfriend is the kind of grand romantic gesture you only find in myths.

But, in revealing the truth behind this urban myth, the film gave Takoko back her dignity, something which the best documentarians should be capable of. It’s a cheap shot, but recently we’ve become rather obsessed with watercooler moments, people on television becoming punch lines passed across bar room tables, on blogs or by email, and this was the antithesis of that, taking one of those kinds of stories and revealing that beneath it all there was a once happy girl who was handed one of life’s knocks, and couldn't cope. I can't imagine there are many of us who haven't felt the same way.

No comments:

Post a comment